top of page
  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

Hortense Powdermaker and the Anthropology of Modern Life

When you picture an anthropologist, the first thing that comes to mind is probably a person in khakis sitting at the edge of a tribal ceremony while furiously scribbling away on a precious, well-worn notebook.  Somebody who researches and lives amongst pre-industrial peoples to discover the traditions and notions of kinship that form the basis of human society.  And that is indeed what an anthropologist was until a woman from Baltimore asked the one crucial question: why aren't we applying the techniques of anthropology to contemporary civilization?

Her name is as magnificent as her work was ground-breaking: Hortense Powdermaker (1900-1970).  She grew up in what she described as a "middle middle class" Jewish household and rebelled almost from the start against her family's traditional expectations and worship of prosperity.  Instead of settling down to the expected bourgeois family life, after college she volunteered to become a labor organizer in the burgeoning trade union movement.  She went into the factories and got to know the workers, outlining the advantages of unionization, while at the same time meeting with the factory owners to demonstrate the necessity of voluntarily allowing their workers some degree of organization.

These were the years when the most energetic of campaigns could take a decade or more stretched over multiple failed efforts to finally unionize a region's skilled workers, and Powdermaker found that she couldn't deal with that cyclical grind of failure equitably.  She couldn't pour her heart and energy into a job, see it inevitably come to nothing, and then simply start again from scratch.  She was good at her work, and her superiors lobbied hard to keep her, but she knew it was not the job for her.  She had to get away, from both the cult of material possessions of her family circle and the frustrations of her union work, and find employment that engaged her full mind.

So, she went to England, without much of a plan beyond going to a college there to audit classes until she found something to feel passionate about.  She picked two courses to start which seemed to be as far from her old life and its concerns as possible: geology and anthropology.  Geology, it turned out, she found frightfully dull, but anthropology, taught by Bronislaw Malinowski, caught her by the heart.  Malinowski was one of the greats of the age, and his open classroom manner and love of dissecting the fine webs of relation that hold ancient societies together were irresistible.

She soon joined the department as a legitimate student, and was assigned her first field work in 1929: observing the late Stone Age village of Lesu, on the southwest Pacific island of New Ireland.  She went alone to live among the three hundred or so inhabitants of a village that had had only the barest of contact with modern Western civilization.  Here, for the first and last time of her career, she was fully the traditional anthropologist - learning the language of the native people, compiling extensive lists of kinship ties, attending (and sometimes performing in) ceremonies of birth and death, manhood and womanhood, and taking notes on the village's reactions to the slowly encroaching phenomena of Western technology and bureaucracy.  

It was important work, and she experienced all the professional and personal joy of fitting in with, being accepted by, and eventually beginning to understand, a Stone Age people.  But at the end of a year, the unvaried routine of island life, the limited diet, the anti-malarial medication, and the encroaching repetitiousness of her notes signaled that it was time for a new anthropological challenge.  Which was when she had her insight... she had studied a prehistoric society and had seen how the methods of observation-participation worked in revealing the social connections and assumptions that bound a community together.  Why not, then, apply the same techniques to a contemporary American society?  

She ultimately chose to study the interplay between African American and Caucasian communities in the deep South, choosing Mississippi as a state where those interactions were particularly fraught with complicated layers of history, psychology, and economic interest.  The year was 1933.

Her work in Indianola, Mississippi, besides being the first study of a modern society in the United States by an anthropologist, was a strategic challenge from the start.  The white establishment was deeply suspicious of a Baltimore Yankee coming to study black society, and felt that she must be secretly working to sow discord.  Meanwhile, the black population of the region, who had been systematically cheated and oppressed at every turn by the white planter society which employed them, could not help but be suspicious of a white woman who showed up in their midst and began asking questions about their lives and lifestyles.  

It was a monumental task, assuaging the fears of both groups, but Powdermaker managed it by a masterful mixture of honesty and respect.  She went against one of the great Southern taboos by using Mr. and Mrs. when addressing people of color, and regularly sharing meals with the black families she was studying, but at the same time her honesty and literary talents won her admirers amongst the white aristocracy who otherwise could have made her work impossible.  

She looked into the centrality of the church in black social life as the only institution of note which was completely controlled by the community without white interference.  In town, black people were expected to play-act a submissive role straight from an ante-Bellum storybook.  In business, white planters systematically and proudly cheated them of their sharecrop earnings in order to keep them just at the nervous edge of solvency.  In education and government, they were trapped by a white bureaucracy with an overwhelming thirst for the status quo.  But here, in this one place, in church, the content of their words and the manner of their gathering was not dictated or curtailed, and the full flower of centuries of frustration and degradation could be expressed.  

Two decades before the Civil Rights Movement, Powdermaker reported on the generational gap between those who had lived through Reconstruction and pinned their hopes on Keeping Your Head Down And Getting By, and a new crop of young people, tired of the mock subservience and the constant fear, and starting to form plans of agitating for Something Better.  She detailed the complicated workings of status in a society circumscribed by a more dominant racial and economic group, and how the tensions between the white aristocracy, the emerging planter class, and the poor white laborers vented themselves upon the nearby black community.  The resulting book, After Freedom: A Cultural Study in the Deep South (1939), shone a light on the role that societal constructs and taboos play in driving the political and economic structure of a community, and was cited often in the coming decades by the nascent Civil Rights Movement.

As original and complicated as her work in Indianola was, her third study was the pinnacle of improbability: a study of the anthropology of Hollywood.  She had noticed, in her Indianola work, that black communities and white communities watching the same film came away with different interpretations of its themes and truths, and wondered if the social construction of the Hollywood system itself played a determining role in what ideas were allowed to be presented, and how.  

This was to be the most ambitious and frustrating of Powdermaker's studies.  Unlike Lesu or Indianola, where the population was concentrated in one physical area with regular and constant interactions, Hollywood was a diffuse web of ever-shifting relations between far-flung elements. The methods she had honed for entering, observing, and gaining the trust of a community were more or less meaningless here.  Talking with writers, directors, editors, and actors, she developed an unconscious revulsion for Hollywood's production techniques, one which she realized later biased the nature of her analysis.  

The resulting book, Hollywood: The Dream Factory: An Anthropologist Looks at the Movie-makers (1950) was perhaps her most popular, and the one she was least satisfied with.  Today, it is a fascinating account of the tail end of the Glamour era of Hollywood, a glimpse into what happens when an essentially creative process is dictated from above by a business-oriented bureaucratic structure.  And in a post-Weinstein age, her revelations about the commodification of women's bodies in 1940s Hollywood take on a new form of urgency, but at the time all Powdermaker could see was that she had been made by her publisher to add a bunch of parallels to island societies that she didn't really believe in, and that she was writing from a place of frustration and disgust rather than one of pure objectivity.  

While dissatisfied with her Hollywood experience, it did set her thinking about a possibility for a new topic: what is the impact of modern mass media on African society?  Through British governmental and educational organizations, films and radio were beginning to make their way definitively into every colonized corner of African civilization, and Powdermaker wanted to determine how these idealized pictures of Western society were evaluated and interpreted by traditional cultures living under the direct control of that society.

She traveled to a copper mining colony in Rhodesia (now Zambia) and threw herself once more into the task of unraveling, as in Indianola, the taboos governing the interactions between the white and black populations there.  Almost from the start, she saw that there was a greater story here to be told, of a culture watching its ancestral way of life disintegrate under the intensity of Western technological proficiency.  Tribal elders treated movies as the great corrupters of their young, while others saw them as a spur to innovation and self-governance. 

She was 54 by the time her study wrapped up, and it would take her a further 8 years to condense all of her data into a form that struck the right balance of rigor and accessibility.  Copper Town (1962) when it finally came out showed a culture at the crossroads of colonization, modernization, and economic exploitation, while investigating the issue of how media allows cultures to package themselves for foreign consumption.  Besides her 1966 memoir Stranger and Friend, it was her last major work.

At the time of her death in 1970, Hortense Powdermaker could look back on an unconventional, varied career that opened a tumbling galaxy of new research options for those who came after her.  Instead of specializing in one geographical location's native people, she spent her career moving between vastly different areas that shared common abstract themes.  She brought the whole messy complexity of modernity under the microscope of the anthropologist, and contributed some of the twentieth century's most potent observations about how taboo and tribalism not only continue, but thrive, in the world of automobiles and Technicolor dreams.  The Stone Age, it seems, is still with us, sometimes as a whisper, sometimes a howl, but always there, pushing, influencing.  Waiting.


Amazingly, all of Hortense Powdermaker's major works are still in print, though equally amazingly nobody has yet written a full volume about her life and work as far as I know.  So, your best bet is probably her 1966 memoir Stranger and Friend.  It covers her early life, and contains detailed accounts of all four of her major research expeditions.  She is frank when she believes herself to have been in error, but strong and confident in expounding her strengths, and the resulting personality that pops from the page is irresistible.  Of her other works, I'd say Hollywood probably has the broadest appeal, After Freedom is the most important, and Life in Lesu is my personal favorite, so do with that what ya will!


bottom of page